Retro Review: Watchmen

Those of you who know me know that I’m a big comic book geek. I’ve read comics since I was a kid, and I still do and I don’t apologize for it. There is something magical about the medium, and about the heroes and villains that populate those four-color worlds. Superhero stories can be dramatic or funny, character-driven or action-oriented, serious or silly or downright stupid. They can be full of cosmic conflicts or street-level fisticuffs. But long ago, they were primarily for children. A few series came along in the mid-eighties that challenged that premise. One such series was Watchmen.

A number of years ago (longer ago than I’d like to admit), a film version of Watchmen by the now much-maligned Zack Snyder was released. Back then I wrote a review of the film. Since DC Comics is currently publishing Doomsday Clock, a 12 issue sequel to Watchmen, I have decided to re-post my old movie review here. Consider this a prequel, if you will, to my forthcoming in-depth discussion of Doomsday Clock. (Oh, you know it’s coming, and your eyes’ll be glued to the screen reading it!)

Without further ado, I present to you my nine year old review of Watchmen, the movie.

I discovered Watchmen when it first appeared as a monthly, twelve issue comic book series released in 1986-1987. I had never read anything like it. It took the concept of superheroes and turned it on its ear. It addressed complex world issues, such as the then-current cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It philosophically discussed the nature of mankind. And the ending presented a moral dilemma that made you second-guess who was the hero and who was the villain. Could a completely horrible act be condoned if it brought about a greatly desired result? Does the end justify the means? If you read the ending of Watchmen and didn’t come away questioning everything you believed about right and wrong, you missed the whole point.

Watchmen, by writer Alan Moore and artist David Gibbons, is a comic book. It is also serious literature. It was the first comic book to win a prestigious Hugo Award, and it has been named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 novels from 1923 to the present. It certainly has its detractors—those who refuse to acknowledge that the comic book form can rise above its humble roots, those who expect and want a straight-forward, action packed superhero story, and those who simply don’t get it—but for the most part it is acclaimed as a masterwork.


I can’t separate myself from my knowledge of the comic book while watching the film. I can’t discuss it from the point of view of the uninitiated. I hope the movie plays well for people who have never heard of Watchmen before, but I can’t know for sure. All I know is that to me, it was absolutely amazing. I have already seen it twice, and I know in the weeks to come I will see it several more times.

Like the book, the film takes place in 1985 in the midst of cold war paranoia. But it is a very different 1985 then the one we remember, mostly because of the existence of “costumed adventurers,” or superheroes. These heroes, with one exception, have no superhuman abilities; they are simply men and women who have trained their bodies to physical perfection in pursuit of their chosen vocation. They are very flawed individuals, and some take to the streets in their outrageous costumes and masks for reasons less noble than fighting crime: thrills, sexual gratification, psychopathic compulsions, or the desire to scribe their own twisted morality on the world. However, despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, deep in their hearts they truly do want to make the world a better place.

As I said, the existence of these costumed heroes has significantly changed the world from the one we live in. The greatest bringer of change is Dr. Manhattan, the only one with actual super powers. Due to a strange accident in a science lab, physicist Dr. Jon Osterman was transformed into an almost all-powerful entity, capable of manipulating matter, teleporting, and unleashing destructive energy. He seems to have no limitations and is virtually indestructible. Due to his intervention, America won the Vietnam War. This victory allowed President Nixon to repeal the Twenty-second Amendment so he could run for more than two terms. By 1985, Nixon is in his fifth term as president. A law passed in 1977 has outlawed superheroes, except those sponsored by and working for the federal government. Dr. Manhattan and an amoral, violent anti-hero called the Comedian are the only two who choose to work for the U.S.


While the Comedian performs covert military operations for the government, Dr. Manhattan is the crux of America’s military superiority. The threat of his power is what keeps the USSR from attacking the United States. However, experts believe that the Soviet Union will not be cowed forever, and that they will inevitably launch a nuclear assault. Dr. Manhattan might be able to stop ninety-nine percent of Russia’s missiles, but the one percent that gets through will certainly be enough to destroy the country. Nixon’s finger is on the button of America’s own nuclear arsenal, contemplating a pre-emptive strike.

It is difficult to remember nowadays (and impossible for young people who weren’t there) the mortal terror many of us felt at the near-certainty (in our minds) of nuclear war—of mutually assured destruction. But to truly “get” Watchmen, you have to put yourself in that frame of mind. Today our fears revolve around terrorism. Back then, we truly feared the end of the world. Perhaps we still do, but the reasons are very different.

Amidst these times of global tension and paranoia, the Comedian is murdered. Rorschach, a hero who refused to retire in 1977 and now operates illegally, investigates. Rorschach is an obsessive man with a code of moral absolutism, in which good and evil are strictly defined. Everything is black and white; there is never any gray. He also may very well be a sociopath. As Rorschach investigates the murder, he develops the theory that there may be a “mask killer,” someone who is out to eliminate costumed heroes. He proceeds to warn the remaining heroes that someone is out to kill them.

Watchmen Rorschach

On the most superficial level, Watchmen is a murder mystery. The larger plot becomes evident as Rorschach continues his investigation. There are many digressions and flashbacks, fleshing out the world and the lives of these strange heroes. Some movie goers may be put off by these digressions, thinking they are unnecessary or that they make the movie “slow.” Certainly, this film advances at its own, leisurely pace, but these digressions are character studies which delve into the nature of humanity, which is one of the major themes of Watchmen. Why is Rorschach the man he is? You have to learn his tragic history to know. How did Dr. Manhattan get his powers, and why is he becoming detached from humanity? A lengthy flashback will tell you.

The remaining Watchmen are soon drawn into Rorschach’s investigation. Nite Owl, or Dan Dreiburg, is the closest thing we get to a traditional superhero. He is mostly motivated by fighting crime and doing good, but there is an element of thrill-seeking (and a kinky fascination with playing dress-up) that motivates him as well. He uses advanced technology in his battle against wrong-doers, the most spectacular toy in his arsenal being his flying owl-ship. Silk Specter, or Laurie Jupiter (Juspeczyk in the comic), is a sexy, skilled fighter. She was pressured into becoming a costumed hero by her mother Sally, who was also known as the Silk Specter in her youth. Laurie, who is in a relationship with Dr. Manhattan, has some serious mommy issues to work through. Finally, there is Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, who has physically perfected both his body and mind. He is known as the world’s smartest man, and, working with Dr. Manhattan, is nearing a solution to the world’s energy problems. He is creating a free, renewable source of energy based on Manhattan’s powers, which is sure to enrage the pioneers of industry whose bread and butter is the sale of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Nite Owl and Silk Spector from Watchemen

In the comic, we get to know each of these characters very well. Each of them gets a full issue to examine their… um… issues… as well as their back-stories. In the movie we see far less of this, but we still get significant glimpses of the histories of the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach. Sadly, Veidt, a pivotal character in both book and film, does not get much screen time.

Critics have been split over the success of this film. The website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 65% on the “Tomatoemeter,” which means 65% of the reviews they have tallied are generally positive. A score of 60% or higher qualifies a film as “fresh,” while scores lower than this give a film a “rotten” designation.

Many critics have complained that some of the acting is far below par. Almost universally panned is Malin Akerman as Laurie. For the life of me, I cannot understand why. The character is not written the same in the script as she is in the comic, but Akerman does a fine job with the material she is given. In one scene in particular, where she experiences a devastating revelation about her past, she emotes powerfully the grief and despair I would expect the character to feel. I agree with most critics, though, that standout performances include Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian. These are, in my opinion, the most meaty roles, and the actors do them justice.

Since it is a murder mystery, a cold war tale, a philosophical exploration, and a character study, there is not much action in the comic. The film is short on action as well, although what’s there is very intense, very violent, and very exciting. If you are only interested in action, you might want to skip this movie. You might also want to skip it if graphic violence disturbs you. Some of the fighting is brutal. Blood flies and bones break. There is one very disturbing scene of an attempted, but interrupted, rape. It is ugly and brutal, but necessary to the plot.

comedian beat up

Much ado has been made about Dr. Manhattan’s nudity in the film, but if you are at all mature and can handle the sight of a penis, it is much ado about nothing. Manhattan, having no physical need for clothing and a receding connection to humanity and its mores, does not see the need to cover himself. It is essential to his character and representative of his estrangement from the human condition. The attention many critics and movie goers have given to his nudity is both sophomoric and unwarranted. There is so much wonder to look at on the screen at any given time as to make the appearance of a blue, CGI penis negligible. All I can say is, “grow up.”

Some are disturbed by the fact that there’s also some near-pornographic sex in the film. Now, I think it could have been done more tastefully, but the sex is important to the story, especially as it deals with some of Dan Dreiburg’s hang-ups. Frankly, this is a movie for adults with adult themes and ideas, so the intended audience should not be bothered by a little romp in the sack (or on an owl-ship).

A major criticism of the film has been that the viewer develops little emotional attachment to the characters. Maybe it’s my recollection of my affection for these characters in the novel, but I truly feel for each and every one of them while watching the movie. The Comedian is an amoral murderer, but he is also a sad, lonely man who uncovers a horrible plot and is killed for it. Rorschach is a psychopath, but his terrible past inspires pity and understanding. Laurie is tormented both by her mother’s control over her destiny and her inability to face the truth about her past. Dr. Manhattan is both more and less than human, and far sadder about that fact than he lets on. Dan is lonely and purposeless, unable to feel alive unless he is wearing a costume. And Adrian Veidt, as the world’s smartest (and probably richest) man must make decisions that torment him and perhaps drive him over the edge of sanity.

Ozymandias Watchmen

The ending of the movie diverges from the book in a significant way. However, the core theme remains. I said earlier that, at the end, the characters face a nearly unthinkable moral dilemma. The “villain” of the film has, by his actions, however heinous and insane, done a greatly desirable thing that will benefit humanity. Should his crimes be exposed, allowing evil to be punished, when to do so would reverse the good that his evil actions have accomplished? By Rorschach’s code of black and white, absolutely. But the others—and the viewers—may have a different opinion. Or maybe not. The beauty of Alan Moore’s story is that it doesn’t decide for us. We decide. If we can.

Since the end plays out differently in the movie, a wonderful, life-affirming scene from the book is removed. It is a beautiful moment that moves me to tears every time I read it. Without it, the ending of the film comes off as much darker. Still, the movie’s ending works and is powerful in its own right. I just wish one of my favorite scenes from the book made it to the screen intact. This is the only real complaint I have with the movie, and it is a very small one.

Visually, the film is dark but beautiful. Director Zack Snyder and his crew of mad geniuses have painted a stylized, gutter-chic tapestry of an alternate New York, and the special effects are out of this world (sometimes literally, as part of the movie takes place on Mars). The costumes are top-notch, as are the sets, both real and CGI. Dr. Manhattan is a triumph of animation. Even if you don’t like the film’s story or characters, you may still appreciate it as a visual masterpiece.

blow up

The final point I want to make is that this is not a traditional superhero movie, and it is absolutely NOT for kids. It is violent and sometimes disturbing, and it contains nudity and explicit sex. It’s rated R for a reason, folks. I would say if your kids are at least 14 or 15 and pretty mature, take them to see it. Younger or immature kids… leave them at home! They will be disturbed by some parts and bored to tears by others, and they certainly won’t understand it.

The opinions of naysayers notwithstanding, this is a deep, emotional work and a faithful adaptation of the comic book. Much of the richness of the comic is missing, but such loss is unavoidable when condensing a lengthy work to a two-and-a-half hour film. Watching it, I relived the joy and excitement I was able to feel more often when I was young. Seeing one of my favorite stories play out on screen was an amazing experience, and Snyder has my eternal thanks for having the guts to make this film and do it right.

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